Monday, September 6, 2010

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"

In a way, the fate of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was ordained as far back as 1997, when JK Rowling began to lay her plans for a heptalogy. It was the fate that awaits the youngest book of almost any major literary series – to be the Harvester of Loose Ends, to gather stray kernels of plot, to winnow grain from chaff, to plant and tend to the last crop of the season. The crop was assured; the only question was: How satisfying would the fruit be?

Harvesting loose ends from six books, three of them intensely voluminous and dense, is not easy, and especially not when it is done for millions of devout eyes that can pick nits at a hundred paces. Writing Deathly Hallows must have been a wringing process, and finishing it – finishing this series – is an achievement for which Rowling deserves every second of the lifetime’s worth of R-and-R that her billions can buy her. Which doesn’t mean that Deathly Hallows is a good book, more’s the pity; it is only fitfully gripping, and even Rowling’s perennially redemptive asset of being breathlessly readable often stubs its toe against clumsy exposition and narration.

Deathly Hallows relies on two chief engines to tug the Harry Potter series to port. The first is the premise that many, far too many, of the elements of Harry’s quest to kill Voldemort lie in the past. This gives Rowling space to fabricate – from the fable-like Tale of the Three Brothers to a more recent wizards’ duel that reeks of World War II, from the personal histories of Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape to Harry’s own lineage.

The most key inflection point in this exploration of history happens to be, yet again, Voldemort’s murder of the Potters and his attempt to kill the infant Harry, an event so muddied by metaphysical and magical explanations that its precise significance now sounds weak and tenuous. Deathly Hallows has too much to clarify, and it does so at painful length; pages together seem to consist of nothing but exposition, and one particular chapter towards the end is almost frightening in its ability to interrupt the action and bore our socks off. Where are the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes when you need them most?

Rowling’s second engine is her ability, or her obsessive tendency, to invent away magical solutions to every pickle, her version of the deus ex machina. Foremost among these are the Deathly Hallows themselves, objects of fantastic potency that make their appearance a third of the way in and immediately proceed to dominate the rest of their eponymous book. The Hallows pose an ethical dilemma to Harry –to choose between duty and desire – but they also make for a cop-out of a climax, one that seems conducted along the lines of shaky Boolean logic and tedious conversation.

That confrontation comes at the end of Rowling’s routine sequence of miniature morality plays, in which Harry and his friends learn about the value of loyalty, of taking the hard way out, the power of love, and the rewards of courage and gumption. These are, to be fair to Rowling, far better written than in previous books, as are certain individual stories; even by the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example, Snape promised to be the series’ most fascinating character, and Deathly Hallows fleshes him out into exactly that. In a series that has been lambasted endlessly for its flimsy characterisations and its inexhaustible fund of clich├ęs, Snape is one of the few true gifts.

The scale of the Harry Potter phenomenon has begun to preclude any comparison except internal ones, so it can only be said that Deathly Hallows is the best book in the series since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and that it will content, probably please, Rowling’s legions of faithful readers. A couple of fallow years hence, it may even inspire a certain nostalgia for 5 a.m. bookstore queues, midsummer media frenzies, and spoiler alerts. But Deathly Hallows will, for me, remain an unsatisfying book, the strangely tasteless fruit of the season’s final crop.

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